Camp Sea Haven, Plum Island MAHistory

The Knobbs

(Above: 1995 Google Earth satellite image of the polio camp at the former Knobbs Beach Life -Saving Station)

No one knows how a sandy cove on the west side of Plum Island about two miles from its southern tip got its name, but 19th Century photographs show a couple of tall dunes which have long since vanished. The Knobbs is the only beach in an otherwise continuous stretch of salt marsh, and provided a landing for sportsmen hunting the abundant shore birds of Plum Island Sound before it became the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

Directly opposite the Knobbs on the Atlantic side of Plum Island was the Knobbs Beach Life -Saving Station, built in 1890. Captain Frank Stevens was given command, and during his 33-year career participated in the rescue of crews from over a hundred wrecked or stranded vessels. On May 4, 1893, the schooner “Brave” from Deer Isle was driven on the shore near Knobbs Beach and the Captain and three men were drowned.

Located in the Ipswich part of Plum Island, the lighthouse was so isolated that the crew had to store enough food to get them through several weeks in the winter. Bar Island Head was the south end of the beach patrol, and a crew member from the Knobbs station would walk north to a half-way point to meet a crew member from the identical life-saving station located at the northern tip of the island. The Knobbs station operated until the end of World War II.

The Knobbs Life-Saving station on Plum Island, later the site of Camp Sea Haven. Photo by George Dexter, c 1900.

Camp Sea Haven

In 1947, Daniel R. Harrington Sr., a polio survivor, founded a camp on Plum Island for polio victims on the location of the former Knobbs Coast Guard station. His family operated the camp for more than two decades as a public service, and after polio was eradicated in the ’50s and ’60s, they began accepting children with other disabilities. From 1972 – 1988 the facility was operated by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. The property was bought by the Parker River Refuge, and the buildings were removed.


Today the site of the life-saving station and polio camp can be reached by a trail that starts at parking lot 5 on the Refuge Road that leads to Sandy Point State Reservation. The nearby Pines Trail entrance road was originally constructed to provide access to the camps at the beach on the Plum Island Sound side.

Sources and further reading:

Related posts

Plum Island the Way it Was Plum Island the Way it Was - Published in 1993, this 100-page book is copied with permission from the estate of the late Nancy Weare. Read by scrolling this page, or click on any image to read as a slideshow.
Boats and houses in an early 20th Century photo of Plum Island, near Newburyport MA The Northern End of Plum Island - Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family’s summer camp at Plum Island. After the Parker River Wildlife Refuge was established, she moved to a home on Great Neck in Ipswich overlooking the island. In 1993, after Nancy retired, she wrote “Plum Island: The Way It Was.”
Plum Island, the Way it Was, by nancy V. Weare The Early History of Plum Island - Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family's summer camp at Plum Island. In 1993 she wrote "Plum Island: The Way It Was," which is reprinted on this site with permission.

Grape Island Hotel, circa 1900, Ipswich MA 300 years on Grape Island - Grape Island was once a small but thriving community, and briefly a popular summer resort. In 1941, 3000 acres of Plum Island including Grape Island were purchased by the U.S. government to establish the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.
Ipswich Bluffs Hotel Ipswich Bluffs - The hotel at Ipswich Bluff on the southern tip of Plum Island was a favorite destination of locals in the late 19th Century, who took the steamer Carlotta from the Ipswich wharf with Capt. Nat Burnham.
Camp Sea Haven, Plum Island MA The Knobbs - The Knobbs is a small beach in a stretch of salt marsh on the west side of the Ipswich section of Plum Island. On the Atlantic side was the Kbobbs Beach Life-Saving Station, replaced in 1947 by a camp for children who had been victims of polio.

Life in the summer of polio - Polio killed 3,145 people in the United States in 1952 and crippled tens of thousands. Children were kept inside, and public health officials imposed quarantines. From 1956 - 57 over 6000 Ipswich children and adults received the new Salk polio vaccine, and in 1962, Ipswich residents received the oral Sabin vaccine. Since 1979, no cases of polio have originated in the United States. David Lindgren tells what it was like in 1949, "the Summer of Polio."

Categories: History, Places

Tagged as: , ,

7 replies »

  1. Now I can’t get that song out of my head:

    “Oh we go to a camp
    that is under the sun
    singing polly wally doodle all day

    Where we make lots of friends
    and we have lots of fun
    singing polly wally doodle all day “

  2. Hello,

    My name is Joseph.

    I started working at Camp Sea Haven in 1971, the year Cerebral Palsy of Greater Boston took over the camp, even though everybody says 1972. I remember, I was 13 years old. I started in the kitchen, as a dishwasher. The following year, I was able to be a junior counselor in one of the cabins, even though you had to be 16, because I worked with the people so well. If you were there, my nickname was Tinsel. I know, it is spelled wrong. 🙂 I had braces, that’s what they called me. I took lots of pictures with my little Kodak 110 camera. I still have most of the photos. I even have some things like mimeograph camp newsletters.

    I work three years there, ’71, ’72, ’73.
    In my third year, I worked a lot of camp maintenance, being the remote hands and eyes of a very nice man from town, named Mike. He was a mechanic, who took care of the power generators, plumbing ,etc.. I kept fuel in them, round the clock, and kept checking the oil, rotating which generator was used.

    Not mentioned was the director during those years, Mr. Vacari, {sp} from Wakefield. He lived there with his wife, and two daughters. The older daughter was a camp counselor, who always played the guitar, everybody sang to. The younger one was my best friend, and we worked together on some of the more difficult campers, which had to be fed and washed, etc. The camp nurse taught us. It never occurred to me, until when I explain to other people years later, that I really was a child nurse.

    For some, coming from the state hospitals, it was there only time away, their summer vacation, they looked forward to, very much.

    There was both physically handicapped, and what we now call developmentally disabled. It was a funny mix, and a crazy place. The older counselors I now realize, were quite amazing, at keeping everybody safe, and making things fun.

    I have so so many memories of those summers out in the middle of those sand dunes.

    Warm regards to all others who were there.
    Feel free to contact me.

    – Joseph {Tinsel}

  3. My name is John A. Quigley, Jr. aka “Jack Quigley”. I was a camper for about eight years there. I remember singing songs while Mr. Harrington would play the piano. God Bless America was a favorite of his. Does anyone remember the song” Camp Sea Haven’s truck has a leak in it’s tire”? We played soft ball in the green head bowl. I remember playing “capture the flag” and it seemed like we used the whole island. I can remember loading up in the back of a pick-up truck on Sunday to go to church back on the main road. I remember swimming in the ocean before the pool was built. It was built for the safety of the campers for fear of the under tow. I was there when Bill was a counselor. I remember receiving badges for swimming, soft ball, volley ball, arts and crafts, and more. I remember painting sea clam shells for ash trays, and making things out of gimp and much more. In the photos, I am the second from the right,line ringing the bell.
    What do you remember?

  4. I caught polio in October, 1955. I Had Bulba (sp?) polio which was one of the worst stages, my diaphragm was paralyzed, and I was literally within minutes of going into an iron lung when my diaphragm began working again. I attended Camp Sea Haven, where I learned to swim, with my sister who also had polio, from 1956 to 1964. My sister continued as a counselor and senior counselor for a few more years. I went to Boston Children’s Hospital for therapy until 1964. All that not withstanding, I served in the U.S. Marine Corps (regular and reserve) from 1969 to 1981 in Aviation and Infantry.

    When our son was born in 1991, and we brought him in for his first polio immunization, I insisted on the Salk Vaccine for the first immunization. When the Dr. asked why, I relied that I had paralytic polio, and that four out of a million who receive the Sabin vaccine develop paralytic polio since it’s a weakened live strain, and I didn’t want him to have even that low a risk. He agreed, and some years after that, due to the U.S. and AMA losing a 1977 Kansas law suit, they changed their recommendations to require the Salk vaccine instead of the Sabin for the first immunization.

    My only concern now (at 70-years old) is post-Polio syndrome since my diaphragm was paralyzed and seemed to recover.

  5. Gordon, that is a very interesting piece about that beautiful part of Plum Island and the great pics of bygone Camp Sea Island. Those were scary years in the mid 50s when polio was spreading. We were so relieved when the vaccine finally became available after years of research. I was in high school and I recall all of us getting the shot in school.

    • It was the called mosquito Bowl ! Love this . I went to this camp for many tears I would love to connect with the people especially the Harringtons

      Thank You

      john Gulezian

      Was your sons name Joe Breen . I went to camp with him .

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.